Now that Signing Day 2010 is here, bitter disappointment over Stanford's last minute loss of admitted 4-star linebacker Jordan Zumwalt as well as the earlier losses of Louis Young and Brandon Bourbon leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many Cardinalmaniacs. As of this writing, a class that had been touted all year as one of the best classes in the Pac-10 checks in on the Scout.com team recruiting rankings as the 24th best class in the nation and just the fifth best class in the Pac-10. Nonetheless, the hype and media attention surrounding Signing Day exaggerates the importance of any single late decision. Ultimately, the class that Stanford did sign and its strengths and weaknesses are what matter.
In assessing the 2010 class for Stanford, any disappointment over the end game must be weighed against the clear progress Stanford has made in its recruiting operation under Jim Harbaugh and his staff. If Stanford's class ends up in the top 25 in the nation, it will be the second most highly ranked class of the last nine years. Coming on the heels of the most highly-touted class of that period, the 2010 class helps confirm an upward trend in Stanford recruiting under the Harbaugh staff that has long been apparent to close observers of Stanford Football. Taken along with the 2009 class, today's haul solidifies the improved overall quality of talent and depth promised by last year's group. Additionally, the departing class of fifth-year seniors came in as the #38 ranked class in the nation, so at least on paper, Stanford got better today as the 2010 class essentially replaced the 2005 class.
Moreover, despite the disappointment that characterized the last days of the recruiting cycle, the quality of the class should not be judged against the lofty expectations of a congenitally optimistic staff or fan base but instead against base line goals for success that we would have outlined at the outset of the year. A year ago, a list of priorities for the 2010 recruiting class may have read:
1. Recruit good quality and quantity at offensive line to address the problematic depth recruited over the previous three years. On a related but slightly broader level, Stanford needed to recruit 260+ pound recruits better than it has in recent years in order to provide sufficient quantity of options at positions traditionally manned by players naturally that size, including the offensive line but also defensive tackle.
2. Recruit good quality and quantity at linebacker to address the problematic depth recruited over the previous three years. Stanford recruited linebacker lightly in 2009 and has had numerous players from the previous two years not pan out at linebacker. With most of Stanford's contributing linebackers from this past season either out of eligibility or only possessing one year of eligibility left, new options will have to emerge. The 2010 class needed to give Shayne Skov some company in the pipeline.
3. Attract potential difference makers. While any individual recruit can turn into a superstar, the likelihood of producing all-league performers and other standouts increases as teams recruit consensus elite prospects. As Stanford begins to aspire to compete at the top of the conference and gain berths in the Rose Bowl or other BCS bowls, true difference makers arguably become even more important.
4. Improve the depth on the roster. The rosters of the teams that languished under Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris invariably included a handful of players who were elite recruits in high school and others who went on to play in the NFL. But the teams could not sustain any level of success for whatever reason. To the extent that the failures of that era owed to poor position coaching or overall leadership, Stanford fans hope and believe the Harbaugh staff represents a significant improvement in that regard. However, the failures were also due in part to rosters that lacked quality depth. Injuries to starters proved devastating. Practices often pitted some quality Pac-10 players against teammates with considerably less ability. Perhaps most significantly, weak links at certain positions emerged and prevented the quality efforts at other positions from propelling Stanford to overall team success.
Stanford's 2010 class should be judged against these metrics to determine how well it addressed the priorities facing the program in attracting talent.
Recruit good quality and quantity at offensive line
Stanford ended up with four offensive linemen in the 2010 class: Dillon Bonnell, Cole Underwood, David Yankey, and Cameron Fleming. All were evaluated by Scout.com as offensive tackles and are clustered among the #37 to #52 offensive tackle prospects in the nation in Scout.com's estimation. The group reportedly includes sufficient athleticism among the various members for projection to either guard or tackle. The specific position projections matter less than that Stanford signed four quality, sought-after, and versatile offensive linemen who provide options across the offensive line.
In terms of quality, the group appears to fit the bill for Stanford. Bonnell ranks among the highest 3-star recruits in the nation and, in fact, slipped out of the top 300 overall prospects only recently and does merit 4-star status on another website. In Scout.com's view, all are legitimate candidates for top 500 overall players in the nation and, extrapolating based on the 30 top 300 offensive tackles in the nation, Bonnell, Underwood, and Yankey almost certainly would rank in the top 500.
For those who place more credence in the evaluation of college coaches than recruiting services, Yankey had arguably the most elite recruitment of any Stanford signee this year, picking Stanford over offers from Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, UCLA, and many others. Bonnell had offers from at least half of the Pac-10 as well as many other schools, including Georgia Tech, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Utah. Underwood also had double digit offers, including Nebraska, TCU, and Wake Forest. Fleming was long committed to TCU and had a more under-the-radar recruitment but also had double digit offers, including Oklahoma State, Arkansas, and Missouri in addition to the Horned Frogs.
By any measure, Stanford recruited very good quality at offensive line this year. Another website ranks Stanford as the 17th best offensive line haul in the nation. However, Stanford's ability to rank even higher was constrained by its inability to sign an impressive quantity of offensive linemen. Four offensive linemen is not a big group. Given Stanford's extremely acute needs in the offensive line pipeline due to an entire class in 2007 that has yet to produce a Pac-10 lineman and classes the next two years that only combined for five linemen, four was at best a bare minimum for Stanford to recruit in 2010. Thus this class fits the bill in terms of the need for quality at offensive line but is more dubious in terms of the need for quantity. Ultimately, Stanford faced a severe need at offensive line this year and ended up signing four quality players at those positions but likely heads into the next recruiting cycle still needing bodies at offensive line. That is far from ideal since the 2011 class is likely to be smaller in size than the last two, but the quality of Stanford's 2010 offensive line haul should push any complaints somewhat to the margins.
On the related need of Stanford needing to recruit 260+ pound recruits better, Stanford continues to recruit physically small classes. One of Stanford's offensive line recruits reports a weight below 260 pounds, none report a weight above 280 pounds, and 16 of the 21 recruits who have signed Letters of Intent report a weight of 250 pounds or less. That leaves Stanford with only 11 recruits in the last three recruiting classes who reported weighing 260 pounds or more coming out of high school and one of those, defensive tackle Padric Scott, is no longer at Stanford. Stanford has clearly struggled to recruit physically big recruits under the Harbaugh regime, strongly prefers smaller athletes, or both. In assessing this from a depth perspective, offensive line remains a concern, albeit much less of one than it was a year ago now that Stanford has added quality at those positions, and defensive tackle is by far the biggest problem facing the program going forward. Stanford will need to recruit the position strongly in the next year and hopes that Eddie Plantaric becomes a fixture there.
Recruit good quality and quantity at linebacker
The loss of Zumwalt stings in this regard. He would have joined Blake Lueders as a consensus top 300 overall player joining the class at a position of need for Stanford. Stanford should be thrilled to have Lueders, the #79 recruit in the nation according to Scout.com and the crown jewel of Stanford's class, but he may have equal projection for defensive end as he has for linebacker. Thus the loss of Zumwalt could seriously impair Stanford's ability to meet the need at linebacker with this class.
In the end, Stanford signed four probable linebackers, nabbing 3-stars Joe Hemschoot, Cleophus Robinson, and A.J. Tarpley in addition to Lueders. Hemschoot was an under-the-radar recruit until the end of the year, when his recruitment blew up after the late bloomer sent his senior year highlight tape to schools. A year younger than most of his peers, Hemschoot was nonetheless one of the best players in Colorado this year as do-everything quarterback and linebacker. Stanford won his services in a frenzied late competition with Oregon and Colorado. Despite not having any recruiting profile for much of the year, he ultimately garnered recognition from Scout.com at the #34 outside linebacker prospect in the nation, a high 3-star and top 500 overall kind of prospect.
While Robinson and Tarpley do not have the same recruiting profiles as Lueders or Hemschoot, Stanford hopes they also contribute to improved depth at linebacker for the Cardinal. Robinson reportedly suffered from the same lack of exposure as Hemschoot insofar as he did not get his highlight tape to coaches until late in the process. He has been a solid player in the South New Jersey area the past two years as a pass rushing linebacker/defensive end, combining for 27 sacks in those two years. He chose Stanford over Louisville and Temple. Tarpley has long been in the fold for Stanford and won Gatorade Player of the Year for Minnesota. He chose Stanford over offers from Central Florida and Kansas State.
From a recruiting profile standpoint, Stanford's 2010 linebacker haul is a mixed bag now that Zumwalt is not in the class. Two of the signees, Hemschoot and especially Lueders, were highly sought-after recruits with different, potentially complementary skill sets. Lueders is a long-established, active, big athlete with an undeniably high recruiting profile as Stanford's only U.S. Army All-American in the class. Hemschoot is a much smaller athlete known more for his late development and potential for growth. The other two signees, Robinson and Tarpley, are more unknown quantities who Stanford will hope develop beyond their recruiting profiles.
Whether this group fills Stanford's need at linebacker is an unknown at this point. It is possible that, combined with last year's haul of Shayne Skov and Jarek Lancaster, this group provides Stanford a solid core of underclass linebackers to compete for positions and fill a quality starting linebacker group. However, much depends on a major wildcard looming over the program: what defense will new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio run on The Farm?
Fangio is a highly respected football coach with close associations to mentors Jim Mora (the senior version and former Stanford assistant) and Dom Capers. His experience coordinating defenses for those men and also his more recent experience coaching linebackers for the vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense endow him with substantial experience running a 3-4 defense. It is possible that Stanford's personnel prompts Fangio to install a different system than the one he has coached for the bulk of his career as a defensive coordinator. Equally likely, though, is that Stanford undergoes a fundamental transformation in its defense under Fangio. If Stanford does move to a 3-4 defense or something closer to it than the base defenses Harbaugh has installed under Ron Lynn and Scott Shafer, any analysis regarding the 2010 linebacker haul must be conducted with that in mind.
If Stanford is moving to a 3-4 defense, the quartet in this class and the duo in the previous class would probably be incapable of producing sufficient depth at linebacker without position switches. As with any position, the likelihood of injury or bust exists for any of these recruits and Stanford needs sheer numbers to be able to populate a 2-deep in a 3-4 defense. But the possibility for position switch does exist. Indeed, a move to a 3-4 defense would necessitate a reformulation of numerous roles. On the current roster, somebody like Chase Thomas would be forced to adapt to a new role as an outside linebacker/rush end. In the current recruiting class, defensive end Alex Turner would presumably join the aforementioned quartet in the linebacker corps if Stanford did indeed move to a 3-4 defense. Safety Ed Reynolds may be another outside linebacker candidate.
At this point, whether the 2010 class meets Stanford's needs at linebacker remains an open question, subject to how the players in the class develop, what defense Stanford runs, and what players in this class end up at linebacker.
Attract potential difference makers
Any member of a recruiting class can turn into a difference maker. Stanford's most decorated returning player in terms of all-league recognition is fullback Owen Marecic, a lightly recruited linebacker/fullback coming out of high school. Toby Gerhart was one of the jewels of his class from the get-go, but a year as a consensus All-American and Heisman runner-up surely qualifies as exceeding high 3-star or low 4-star expectations. Conversely, elite national recruits can fall short of difference-making contributions. Stanford has seen its share of 4- and 5-star recruits this decade never become all-league performers for a variety of reasons (bust, injury, supporting cast, etc), including Michael Craven, Trent Edwards, Ekom Udofia, Will Powers, and others. Nonetheless, research shows a correlation between the prominence of one's recruiting profile and all-league or NFL accomplishment.
The star of the class in terms of recruiting profile is Blake Lueders, the #79 recruit in the country according to Scout.com, #226 recruit in the country according to Rivals, and #113 recruit in the country according to ESPN. He is also the only Army or Under Armour All-American in the class after playing in the Army game, where he led the East team in tackles and impressed observers as a potential linebacker or defensive end.
Running back Anthony Wilkerson was ranked by Scout.com as the #158 prospect in the nation and by ESPN as the #150 prospect in the nation. Rivals evaluated him as a 4-star and the best running back outside of the top 250.
Quarterback Brett Nottingham was ranked by Scout.com as the #253 overall prospect and by Rivals as the #122 overall prospect. ESPN evaluated him as a 4-star and the sixth best quarterback outside of the top 150.
Defensive back Devon Carrington was ranked by Scout.com as the #236 prospect and by ESPN as the #140 prospect. Rivals evaluated him as a high 3-star.
Those four represent the consensus elite players in Stanford's class. Another elite national prospect is running back Ricky Seale, the third best 3-star running back in the nation according to Scout.com, just outside of the top 300, while Rivals views him as a 4-star and the fourth best running back outside of the top 250.
In addition to these recruits, Scout.com also gives 4-stars to quarterback Dallas Lloyd. The five Scout.com 4-stars falls short of last year's haul of one 5-star and nine 4-stars, but most Stanford fans will welcome it as simply a consolidation of high-end talent above and beyond what Stanford has brought in the past decade prior to Harbaugh. Aside from last year, the 2010 class represents the highest number of Scout 300 players Stanford has signed in any of the nine years covered by the Scout database, tying the four 4+ star players in the 2003 class and edging out the four 4+ players of the 2005 and 2008. Many Stanford fans are understandably disappointed that the much-discussed 2010 class only arguably surpasses the 2003 and 2005 classes in terms of recognized elite prospects and does not match the 2009 haul despite an 8-win Sun Bowl season.
Improve the depth on the roster
Stanford fans will, however, find more to rejoice in the class' probable strengthening of the depth of the roster. The 2010 recruiting class may be the deepest in the history of Stanford football. It certainly qualifies as the deepest of the decade, when recruiting classes can be imperfectly but somewhat systematically compared across years, but many long-time Stanford observers note that it may be unparalleled in Stanford's entire history. In previous years when Stanford may have recruited elite players better than it has this year, it nonetheless typically filled the class with less-desired prospects that can only be charitably be described as hoped-for diamonds in the rough but in many cases were simply reaches. In 2010, Stanford has signed essentially full of players it has either long wanted or fell in love with late in the cycle after seeing film. Almost every recruit has a recruiting profile of some repute.
Numerically, the outstanding depth of the class is represented by 20 Letters of Intent signed by 3+ star prospects according to Scout.com. By itself, that illustrates the profound improvement in depth this class should represent once added to the significant improvements in depth promised by the 2009 class, which also included twenty 3+ star signees. (To put those numbers in perspective, the 2004 and 2005 classes combined for nineteen 3+ star signees.]
But that actually understates how good the depth of this class is. With approximately 1000 3-star recruits per year, there is enormous variation in the evaluation and of course, college production, of 3-star recruits. A three-star recruit in the top 500 overall would be one of the top 200 3-stars nationally and clearly more elite in the evaluators' (admittedly imperfect) estimation than somebody ranked among the top 1300 recruits nationally, who could also nominally have 3-stars. Looking more closely at Stanford's class, the singular advantage of the 2010 class is that loads up on 3-star recruits at the high end of the spectrum. In addition to the five players ranked by Scout.com among the top 300 recruits nationally, Bonnell, Seale, Underwood, and defensive end Henry Anderson all rank among the highest-rated 3-stars in the nation, top 400 overall kind of candidates. Plantaric, Yankey, Turner, Hemschoot, athlete Keanu Nelson, and tight end Davis Dudchock are all probably top 500 kind of players. Kickers are harder to evaluate, but Jordan Williamson is ranked as the #5 kicker in the nation, an elite designation among specialists. In all likelihood, Stanford has as many as 15 players in the top 500 nationally and certainly a vast majority of the class in the top half of 3-stars or higher. The depth of the class is staggering, probably the best in the history of the Stanford Football program.
This depth is important to give Stanford an opportunity to minimize the chance that a major weak link or injury to an individual player torpedo a season. While offensive line and linebacker were the principal needs in the class, a healthy pipeline needs balance across position groups every year. Stanford only signed one defensive back last year but signed four this year, assuming one out of Nelson or Seale will end up on defense, and that group includes one of Stanford's most highly-touted defensive back recruits ever in Devon Carrington. Stanford may have whiffed at wide receiver this year, although quarterback Darren Daniel or Nelson may have some projection there, but signed three receivers last year and will likely make it an area of emphasis in 2011. Moreover, Stanford has even continued to stock up at positions of already-impressive strength in order to further bolster depth and increase the likelihood of difference-makers emerging. After signing three 4-star running backs last year, Stanford went and got Anthony Wilkerson and Ricky Seale as two of the most prominent members of this class. After signing an army of tight ends and defensive ends last year, Stanford added guys like Lueders, Dudchock, Anderson, Turner, Plantaric this year. While not all of those guys will be able to see the field at, for instance, defensive end, the sheer quality of big athletes may give Stanford options going forward. In particular, the weakest area of recruiting the last two years, defensive tackle, may find some help in this group. Indeed, Plantaric looks like a lock to be in the mix for Stanford at defensive tackle going forward.
Stanford's recruiting class, while very disappointing to those hoping to get a slew of elite national recruits or hoping to end strongly rather than dropping in national rankings, helps the Stanford Football program. It ranks in the top half of Pac-10 classes. It adds very good quality, albeit not very good quantity, at the absolutely critical area of offensive line, by far the biggest need in the class. It adds a promising but mysterious group at linebacker, the second biggest need. It brings in potential difference makers with the same frequency as Stanford's better years in recent experience, although not on par with last year or expectations for this year. And, in its most crucial feature, it complements the 2009 class nicely in substantially improving the likely depth of the roster in future years.
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